Sunday, 15 April 2012

Singing Lessons I Learned from a Deaf Man

When I was in university I studied communication disorders, speech/language pathology, audiology and sign language --  great stuff for someone entering the field of education at a time when Special Education was starting to be taken very seriously.  I was very drawn to the needs of students with hearing disorders, so took several courses in sign language, which I practiced every chance I got, even attending a church that had a deaf fellowship/ministry so I could learn more signs.  That is how I met Arnett, a deaf man who loved to lead singing at church.

He was amazing.  He was "profoundly deaf", so did all of his communication through notes and sign language.  He certainly had no idea how to sing in the traditional way, but he had a great love of "singing" in sign language. He would go to the front and sign the number of the song he was about to lead from the hymnal.  Then he'd make the sign for ready and look for an agreeable response from the congregation.  We'd all be sitting there with our hymnals balanced on our knees, ready to use both hands as we  joined him in signing the songs.  He'd then take a deep breath the way hearing people do when they are about to start singing, and his "back-up" song leader would start the song from the back of the room, being careful to sing in time with Arnett, who was the actual song leader.

Arnett's favourite song was "How Great Thou Art".  He really got into this song.  He'd start off signing the first line, "O Lord, my God, when I in awesome wonder, consider all the worlds they hands have made."  There's an imaginary box that signers keep their hand signs in, but Arnett couldn't stay in the box for this song.  By the time he got to the fourth word, God's name, he'd exaggerated the size of the sign for God, knowing that he wasn't talking about a little god-- that this God was too big to fit in the box.  Whenever he signed a word referring to God or Heaven, he'd motion way up high above his head, clearly showing that he knew who he was singing to and what he was saying.  They weren't just words to him.  He was communicating something big and powerful; the greatness of God.

The other song I remember him leading a lot was "When We All Get to Heaven".  It's been over 30 years since I worshiped with the deaf fellowship, but, in my mind's eye, I can still see Arnett gazing lovingly at the congregation as he joyfully signed about seeing us all in heaven.  The last line of the song says, "When we all get to heaven, we'll sing and shout the victory!"  Again, he reached high above his head to show the loftiness of heaven and he made big, exaggerated signs to show the power of that shout of victory.

Yes, Arnett knew what he was saying and who he was saying it too, and watching him get caught up in a song was a sight to behold!  The lesson I learned is that there is nothing wrong with losing yourself in the beauty of a song and getting a little dramatic can be a powerful way to communicate.  You just need to know what you're saying and who you're saying it to.

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